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Updated: October 23, 2013 05:29 IST

India, China may sidestep thorny issues

Ananth Krishnan
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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh being received by Ambassador S. Jaishankar on his arrival at Beijing International Airport in China on Tuesday.
PTI Prime Minister Manmohan Singh being received by Ambassador S. Jaishankar on his arrival at Beijing International Airport in China on Tuesday.

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang, for talks at the Great Hall of the People here on Wednesday, the two leaders are expected to largely focus their discussions on economic issues and steer clear of more challenging political and strategic problems, such as the boundary dispute.

The focus on the economic reflects the measured expectations, both in Beijing and New Delhi, ahead of what will be Dr. Singh’s last visit to China during his current term.

There will likely be no landmark agreements or grand announcements, Indian and Chinese officials say, barring a number of trade and investment deals and a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA). The latter deal will only marginally expand the confidence-building measures in place along the border, rather than offer any new ideas to resolve the boundary question, over which talks remain deadlocked after 16 rounds.

One reason for the cautious approach, according to Chinese officials and analysts, is the perception in Beijing that elections in India, next year, may very well herald significant changes.

“In India, it is the remaining year of the government, so big steps would be difficult,” said Han Hua, a leading South Asia scholar at the elite Peking University, in an interview to The Hindu.

In China, too, she added, the leadership under President Xi Jinping and Mr. Li, the Premier, was still “new” in office, having taken over in March this year. “As it is not easy for the two governments at this moment to take any big step, this leaves the agenda for the visit to focus on economic issues,” Ms. Hua said.

Consequently, the visit is unlikely to have landmark agreements such as the move in 2003, during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Beijing visit, to set up the Special Representatives mechanism to negotiate on the boundary question; or the agreement on political parameters and guiding principles announced in 2005 when former Premier Wen Jiabao visited New Delhi.

Since that agreement, the wide perception is that boundary talks have remained deadlocked. The 2005 agreement marked the conclusion of the first of three stages. The second stage, to decide a framework to settle the dispute in all sectors, has proved to be the most difficult.

In a written interview to Chinese State-run media, Dr. Singh said he had, during the past nine years as Prime Minister, “attempted to put India-China relations on a stable growth path.” “Working together with the Chinese leadership,” he said, “my attempt has been to create a forward looking agenda for our bilateral relations.”

Dr. Singh also said India welcomed larger flows of Foreign Direct Investment from China, and the proposal to set up industrial parks, to help address the trade imbalance. He said there was “a great deal of concern” in India about the deficit when asked about the prospects of a Regional Trading Arrangement.

Persisting obstacles

Both sides are unlikely to make headway on issues seen as their “core interests”, such as the boundary dispute, management of transboundary rivers or the ongoing Chinese projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters on Tuesday that China wanted to put in place “consultations with the Indian side to improve efficiency of mechanisms” to maintain peace along the border.

On India’s concerns about the three new dams China is building on the Brahmaputra, in addition to one 510 MW dam already being constructed, Ms. Hua reiterated China’s position that it was sharing hydrological data and would “accommodate each other’s concerns.” On Chinese investments in PoK, Ms. Hua repeated China’s official stand that the Kashmir issue was for India and Pakistan to resolve.

Strains on the border were evident in April when troops were involved in a three-week-long stand-off in Depsang. The BDCA agreement, while adding confidence-building measures, will not resolve the underlying causes of the April incident — persisting ambiguities about each sides’ claim lines and the anxiety caused in India by China’s rapid border infrastructure investments.

Hu Shisheng, a strategic expert at the China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), said the BDCA would be “very important in controlling border crises”. “If they can have this legally binding agreement there will be a double guarantee,” he told China Daily.

Ms. Han Hua, the Peking University scholar, however, said “the basic reason” for the incident — triggered by the Chinese putting up a tent in a disputed area — was a reaction to “too much construction along the border” by India. The Chinese, she acknowledged, did not have to build closer to the disputed border because their infrastructure, as well as more favourable terrain, enabled quick mobilisation. “If we don’t have the overall collaboration of the military, policymakers and decision makers on both sides,” she said, “it will be difficult to avoid such incidents.”

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